Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Child safety improves as CPS takes fewer kids

by Richard Wexler, published on September 7, 2011 at 5:42 AM

Sacramento Press

After years of holding the dubious distinction of tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in California, Sacramento County finally has brought its rate of child removal in line with the state average, the Sacramento Bee reported Monday.

But the Bee left out some good news: The two key measures of safety used by the federal government show that, as entries into foster care declined, child safety improved.

Apparently even with budget cuts, setting clear standards and doing a better job of weeding out false reports and trivial cases has given workers more time to focus on finding children in real danger.

One would think the fact that Sacramento County used to be the child removal capital of California was unknown to the Bee before Monday – since that’s the first time I saw it reported in that newspaper. In fact, reporter Margie Lundstrom was aware of this, but I have never seen it in any of her stories. Lundstrom has been Sacramento media’s biggest cheerleader for the county’s previous, failed take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare.

In contrast, Brad Branan, who reported Monday’s story, apparently takes the refreshing position that readers are entitled to all sides of a story.

Of course, some Sacramento Press readers have known about the county’s dubious distinction for more than a year – it was the subject of a series of stories I wrote for the Press in 2010.

Those stories also outlined the enormous harm done to children when they are torn needlessly from everyone they know and love and consigned to foster care, and they discussed the significant risk of abuse in foster care itself.

Now, at last, the Bee acknowledges that, as Monday’s story put it:

Even those charged with advocating for abused and neglected children accused the agency of overreaching. "They were removing too many children," said Bob Wilson of Sacramento Child Advocates, which provided legal representation for children in Juvenile Dependency Court for almost 20 years, before losing its contract in July.

The Bee notes that the number of children torn from their homes declined from 2,391 in 2008 to 1,005 in 2010, according to county data. Unfortunately, data from a comprehensive database maintained by the University of California, Berkeley show that the rate of removal is increasing again, but not to its previous level.

That same database tracks the two key measures used by the federal government to assess child safety, the percentage of maltreated children who are maltreated again within six months and the percentage of children sent home from foster care who are removed again within 12 months.

During the same time period that entries into care declined, both of these measures improved.

Now, instead of being the child removal capital of California, Sacramento’s rate of removal is about average for the state’s larger counties, when entries into care are compared with the number of impoverished children in each county. Full details are in NCCPR’s updated California Rate-of-Removal Index available here:

But Sacramento can do better still.

Orange County does almost as well as Sacramento on one safety indicator, and significantly better on the other. But Orange County removes children at a rate more than 20 percent lower than Sacramento.

The Bee story notes concerns by Wilson and others that, as a result of budget cuts, the county may be overlooking children in real danger. And it cites a report from the CPS Oversight Committee which found lapses in investigations of cases that ended in tragedy.

But sadly, both problems existed even before the budget cuts – when Sacramento was squandering money on tearing apart all those families needlessly. The data suggest that these problems remain serious and real, but they occur less often now.

Another concern is the elimination of a key prevention program, the family maintenance unit. That program provided voluntary help to families before problems reached the point where CPS intervention was needed. Eliminating that program may indeed set the stage for future tragedies.

But there is a way to revive it without adding to the total budget of the agency. The agency can free up a lot of money by ending the barbaric practice of parking children at that very expensive relic of 19th Century child welfare, the Children’s Receiving Home. I discussed the problems with using the home in this story last year.

CPS actually faces a bigger challenge than money: maintaining its smart, sensible new approach in the face of the next horror story. You can bet that those wedded to the disgraced take-the-child-and-run approach are just waiting for the next tragedy so they can scapegoat the reforms – and hope everybody forgets that the same tragedies occurred when the county was tearing apart far more families. And you can bet Margie Lundstrom will be glad to oblige them with a front-page story parroting their views and ignoring all dissent.

By now, however, perhaps the leadership in county government and the people of Sacramento County know better than to be fooled again.

Former journalist Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Alexandria Va. The full NCCPR California Rate of Removal Index and comprehensive recommendations for reforming child welfare in California and nationwide are available at


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